Tom never saw himself as a problem drinker. Then, when Covid-19 turned the world upside down in March of last year, some aspects of his drinking became impossible to ignore.
I work in an industry that involves a lot of socializing, a lot of events, a lot of pub meetings, ”says Tom (not her real name), a Dublin-based professional in his mid-30s. “Lunchtime pints weren’t everyday, but I usually ended up at the pub at some point.
“Thinking about it now, I was always the one to suggest going for pints. I could still twist someone’s arm, but I was the common denominator.
“I’ll always be up for pints. At least twice a week mid-week, I was at the pub after work, meeting clients, or networking, as I called it.
“Then on the weekends it got even higher. I met my friends for dinner and drinks and my free time was spent drinking alcohol.
But the outbreak of the pandemic changed everything. Suddenly, he was working from home, in front of a laptop all day and having to do all his business by phone. Alcoholic lunches were irrelevant.
“I am a sociable person and also liked to think of a social drinker. Overnight, the way I lived my life completely changed.
“I know it had a different impact on everyone. For me, I was suddenly sitting alone in my apartment the whole time.
“I live alone, but I’ve always been someone who craves companionship and has never been alone.
“But it all stopped – and suddenly I was alone.
“I realized that I missed the few drinks as much as the daily social interactions. I no longer saw people. But I could still have a few beers – I just drank them on my own. “
Tom found himself staring at the clock. “I was trying to make myself wait until lunchtime to get a few cans. I wouldn’t get drunk early in the day or anything, but I found myself wanting to hit 1pm so I could have a beer. It took over.
“I found myself better on the phone to do business, that the two drinks gave me an advantage, that it allowed me to do my job better.
“We had Zoom work calls – and I had a beer in a mug, so it looked like I was drinking coffee.
“After a few months of that, I told myself I could have a drink sooner, than I deserved. I worked hard and we were in the midst of a pandemic. It was my way of relieving stress.
“There were a lot of mornings when I was the first person on the permit at 10:30 am, cursing myself for not having had enough beers the night before.”
Almost a year of alcohol abuse took its toll before Tom realized he hadn’t got it under control.
“I was and am the best performer in my business,” he says. “My colleagues knew I was a heavy drinker, but that didn’t stop me from being the best at my job.
“A few friends of mine have told me about my heavy drinking over the years, but when it comes to work, that hasn’t stopped me from being number one.
“It was actually strangers who gave me the point. It was the looks I started getting from the local dealership staff that put a stop to my gallop. They started to look at me with pity.
“For them, I was just another alco, the first off license when it opened in the morning.
“It was that shame that made me stop drinking so much, because I didn’t want to be that person.”
Tom gradually began to reduce his alcohol consumption. He also sought treatment which he said helped him deal with some issues in his life that spurred his heavy drinking from an early age.
He prides himself on being competitive and sees reducing his alcohol consumption as a challenge.
“In January of last year, I completely quit drinking a few days a week. It took a lot of willpower, but I managed to do it, with the help of exercises, which I launched into to distract myself. I’m still drinking, and now I’m back to work.
“Because of Covid, I’m not as much at the pub as I used to be – but I still go out a lot. It’s good to get back to normal, but I’m drinking less now.
“I think I had a problem, but I fought to get it under control. Do I think I might fall back into my old ways? Yes. Alcohol is a powerful drug. I’m not arrogant enough to think I’m stronger than he is.
Tom’s story is all too familiar, according to Dr Garrett McGovern, an addiction specialist who runs the Priority Medical Clinic in Dundrum, south Dublin. During the lockdown, he says, some people considered “problem drinkers” were forced to acknowledge the extent of their alcohol consumption.
“I have a lot of clients who didn’t know they had a drinking problem before the pandemic. He was dug up because of Covid, ”he says. “A lot of people who saw themselves as social drinkers were forced to realize that they relied too much on alcohol, that they were addicted.”
Dr McGovern, who also works on the HSE’s Addiction Services team to help underprivileged communities, says returning to work has been a real challenge for those struggling with substance abuse.
“Some of the people I treat are back in the office. It was a real challenge for some of them. They told me I was going to the bathroom for a quick drink.
He has also noticed a marked increase in the number of women presenting for treatment.
“I have certainly seen many more women than men seeking help with alcohol addiction during the pandemic. Wine consumption is often a problem – women drink up to two bottles of wine each evening.
“The pandemic has forced a lot of people to come to terms with their alcohol consumption. Patients tell me they avoid Zoom calls because they’ve been drinking too much.
The concept of looking at the clock, until it is an acceptable time for a drink, is common among those struggling with alcohol addiction.
“The clock and food cravings are warning signs,” says Dr. McGovern. “Once you develop a drinking problem, the drink takes control of your life. When you drink to relieve cravings, when it’s relief, it’s a sign that you need help.
“And the help is there. If there is anything good to be learned from this pandemic, it is forcing people who have ignored a problem to accept that it exists. “